Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Plenty of upside in 2014

This year looks set to offer better financial opportunities to people living in practically every country in the world. In the developed world you can look at financial indices such as stock markets to see how things are trending; you had a 14 percent rise in the London-based FTSE index in 2013, for example. But growth is spread broadly. In the US, the S&P 500 index finished the year 30 percent higher and in Australia the ASX 200 was up 15 percent. Of course part of the upside is determined by the downside: low interest rates pretty much everywhere in the developed world mean people are looking to equities to grow their capital, instead of term deposits.

The surprise that gave markets wind in the final days of the year - the US Federal Reserve tapered its quantitative easing policy marginally - only added to the feeling of confidence around the traps, with traders acting in a way that showed they were happy with the announcement despite fears voiced over earlier months about the taper. What it means is that at this point in the economic cycle - halfway through the process of deleveraging that started in 2007 - the steps that have been taken by authorities and governments are worthy of reward in the eyes of the majority of those who are trusted with investing our retirement savings.

These are indices only, of course, and may not always in all cases reflect realities on the ground but I personally see no need to worry unduly about global economic performance in 2014. In fact I see a lot of upside, and this is not just in the developed world - where some countries are still struggling to resuscitate growth and employment, and will face more pain in this new year - but also in developing countries.

In absolute numbers global trade has helped to lift out of poverty hundreds of millions of people in places like China, India and Indonesia. As the middle class in these countries expands, however, it will start to covet many jobs currently - even, until recently - performed in developed countries, so there's no room for complacency in Australia, for example. It's not just call centres, either. Jobs like IT support, accounting, even copywriting are now being done overseas by well-qualified Asian people. On the upside, those same people are going to want to spend the money they earn and will look to the developed world for many of the things they buy. It's up to our managers to find opportunities to supply goods and services that those people want. The bottom line is that there have never before been so many people in the world with money to spend, and that's something that will continue in 2014, and increase.

As people move to cities to build their futures - economic and otherwise - the downside of growth will continue to be pressure on regional and rural areas, with concomitant stress on places where wildlife lives. This "externality" should become more of an issue for the Asian middle class, but for the moment environmental conservation is something that people in the developed world need to further in a leading role. The implication for wildlife of urbanisation is mostly bad, and we need to make sure that growth is managed sustainably so that future generations can enjoy the same quality of life that we do now.

Here, again, is where the developed world should take the lead. The media uses indices like retail spending to demonstrate good or poor economic performance in developed countries, but having and spending money should not be the only index of a society's health. If you only look to your wallet to find agency there's something wrong with your values. There are other, better ways to actualise your essential self in the world than paying for something that probably won't satisfy your needs in the long term. Further education, for example, can offer many surprises for those who are looking for something new in 2014, above and beyond the sugar-hit that comes with buying a new car, for example. Education, especially in the arts, gives you better access to cultural resources and these can provide you with support at those times when other things fail you. So instead of planning a trip to South America, maybe commit to doing a six-month course in creative writing or English literature. You might find things there that you never suspected could exist.

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